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The Key to Oakland’s Next Great Pitching Staff

For the current iteration of the A’s to ever get back to the playoffs, their young starting rotation will have to come close to reaching its potential. In order to do that, they have to listen to Stephen Vogt.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Baseball-Reference says Stephen Vogt was born on November 1, 1984, in Visalia, California, and came to professional baseball as a 12th-round pick by way of Division II Azusa Pacific University. I don’t believe that story.

Vogt stands a barrel-chested 6 feet, 225 pounds, his face covered in a layer of stubble. He doesn’t use batting gloves, instead coming to the plate with his hands unadorned except for nail polish on his throwing hand to make his signals easier for the pitcher to see. I think Vogt was drawn in a cartoon studio by someone who wanted to create a stock “veteran catcher” character, then brought to life by a wizard.

In Vogt’s first year in Oakland, 2013, the A’s won 96 games and the AL West. The next year, he was part of one of the most fascinating teams of the past decade, as Oakland rushed out to a 59–36 record at the break behind Josh Donaldson, Sonny Gray, and Josh Reddick. After adding Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel in early July and Jon Lester at the deadline, the A’s finished 22–33, underperformed their run differential by 11 games, and blew three leads in 12 innings to Kansas City en route to a loss in the wild-card game. They haven’t gotten to even 70 wins since.

Since Vogt was drafted at 22 and took so long to reach the major leagues, he won’t hit free agency until after his age-34 season, which takes away his ability to play where he chooses for the rest of his prime. If he’s going to win a title, he’ll probably have to do it in Oakland, with a club that currently sits at 11–15. After back-to-back last-place finishes, the A’s came into the season with the 27th-highest payroll in baseball and a farm system with a lot of talented pitchers still in the minors but few sure things or future stars. Nevertheless, Vogt is optimistic.

“I think that’s our goal, to get back to being that [2014] team,” he said. “We have the personnel in here to do it. We’ve shown signs of being a good baseball team. We’re going through a tough stretch currently, but we feel like we have the team to do that.”

For them to get there, Vogt, as one of three survivors of the post-2014 wild-card game teardown (four, if you count infielder Jed Lowrie, who left Oakland for a year and came back), will have to find a way to shepherd Oakland’s unusual pitching staff to its full potential.

Coming up through the minors, Vogt was always a bat-first prospect, developing under the possibility that he’d have to move to first base or right field. There’s a place for a platoon corner bat in the big leagues, but not a big one, and as a prospect from a small school living a step ahead of a permanent move to first, Vogt adopted a mentality he retains to this day.

“I try not to look at anything other than today,” he said. “I’ve always looked at it that way. I’ve never had a future in this game; I’ve only had that day to prove to myself that I belong here.”

Vogt first poked his head up for an 18-game stint with the Rays in 2012. He went 0-for-25, and the next April, Tampa Bay sent him to Oakland for cash.

“When I got traded to Oakland, they said, ‘Hey, we know you can hit, let’s see if you can catch,’ and that gave me the green light,” he said.

With that green light, he’s developed into a good big league catcher. Since 2014 he’s posted a 105 OPS+ and averaged 3.1 WAR per 650 plate appearances.

But although he’s spent parts of eight seasons in the minor leagues working on the finer points of catching, he’s never ironed out all the wrinkles in his game, offensively or defensively. Despite hitting right-handed pitchers to a .753 OPS for his career, Vogt’s .586 OPS against lefties means he’s started only 40 games against left-handed starting pitchers in his entire career. And for as much as Vogt’s pitchers like him, he grades out poorly as a framer: 71st out of 77 catchers with at least 1,000 chances in 2016, and 64th out of 69 in 2015.

Vogt split time with Derek Norris for two years, and has been Oakland’s starting catcher since Norris was traded to San Diego before the 2015 season. Since then, he’s made two All-Star teams and become what pitcher Sean Manaea called “the big leader on our team.”

In addition to reliever Sean Doolittle, Oakland’s third holdover from the 2014 team is Sonny Gray, the pint-sized Vanderbilt curveballer who finished third in Cy Young voting in 2015 at age 25. But last year, Gray suffered strains to his forearm and trapezius muscle, which limited him to 22 starts and 117 innings after back-to-back 200-inning campaigns. When he was healthy enough to pitch, Gray posted a 5.69 ERA, more than double his 2015 mark. Gray just made his season debut on Tuesday (four earned runs allowed on three home runs in six innings) after missing all of April with a strained lat muscle.

Because Gray has been either absent or ineffective for more than a year, Vogt has taken charge of a group of five starters: Kendall Graveman, Andrew Triggs, Jharel Cotton, Jesse Hahn, and Manaea, all between 25 and 28 years old, and with only 147 big league starts among them.

“It’s a group of young guys in the rotation, and he controls it really well,” Cotton said. “As young guys we lean on him a lot to be that father figure for the starting pitchers, and I feel like he’s doing a great job of it.”

When Vogt talks about his pitchers, he sounds a little like a high school band director who lets students eat lunch in his office when they’re having a rough day: firm and direct, but nurturing as well, always able to produce the right word or sentiment without having to search for it.

“I think the biggest thing for me is to give them confidence when they’re wavering, when they’re first coming into the big leagues, or maybe when they’re having a rocky start,” Vogt said. “Just encourage them, like, ‘Hey, your stuff is good, you are good, you belong here.’”

That hasn’t always been obvious, either for Vogt or for his pitchers, because there isn’t a can’t-miss prospect among them. It’s easy to look at a group of Oakland pitchers, all drafted out of college and succeeding together in their mid-20s, and draw parallels to the A’s rotations of 15 years ago, but this group took a different path to the majors.

In 1997, the A’s took Tim Hudson, a two-way player out of Auburn, in the sixth round of the draft. The next year, they spent the no. 2 overall pick on Michigan State left-hander Mark Mulder, and the year after that they drafted Southern Cal lefty Barry Zito no. 9 overall. In 2000, Hudson finished second in Cy Young voting. In 2001, Mulder did the same, and in 2002, Zito won the award.

Gray, an Oakland first-rounder from a Vanderbilt program that’s produced eight first-round pitchers in the past decade, including David Price, fits that model. The other five don’t. Unlike the legendary rotation from 15 years ago, none of the other five pitchers were Oakland draft picks. Graveman came over from Toronto in 2014 for Josh Donaldson, Hahn a month later for Norris. The Royals traded Manaea to Oakland for Ben Zobrist in 2015, and Cotton was part of the Rich Hill–Josh Reddick package last summer. Triggs was a waiver-wire pickup.

Nor were they, broadly speaking, prospects in the range of Hudson, Zito, and Mulder. In 2013, Manaea was in the running to go no. 1 overall out of Indiana State, but hip issues caused him to fall to no. 34, where the Royals offered him more than double the slot-assigned signing bonus. He’s the only one of the five to go in the first five rounds of the draft.

Despite these comparatively humble origins, heading into Gray’s start Oakland’s starting pitchers had held batters to a .221/.302/.330 batting line, with the third-best FIP of any rotation in baseball. Manaea and Cotton — the only two to appear on any global top-100 prospect list — are the only two with an ERA+ under 150 at the moment. Manaea is on the 10-day DL with shoulder discomfort, though he’s scheduled to return after missing only one start.

“I keep telling everybody I love our team,” said Cotton, who said he considers Graveman to be the team’s co-ace, along with Gray. “I love our squad. I feel like we’re going to surprise some people.”

“Sonny’s obviously our no. 1. When he’s here, and he’s healthy, he’s our best pitcher, and I think we all know that,” Vogt said. “But Graveman’s right behind him, Manaea’s right behind him, and Cotton’s right behind him. I think Graveman said it best right before Opening Day: Whoever’s starting that night, that’s our no. 1.”

Because most of the pitchers he’s working with are newcomers to the organization, Vogt has had to go out of his way to cultivate a relationship of trust. He says it takes three or four starts to get used to a new pitcher’s motion, timing, and stuff, but the closeness of the catcher-pitcher relationship requires him to get to know his teammates off the field as well.

“What’s their personality like? Are they a bulldog mentality, or do they need encouragement? We’re all different,” Vogt said. “Everybody’s an individual. No two pitchers are alike. We have a lot of sinkerballers, but maybe their off-speed stuff is different, or their sinker’s different.”

Certainly that’s true in Oakland’s rotation. Manaea, a 6-foot-5, 245-pound lefty, is a prototypical power pitcher: mid-90s fastball, slider, changeup. Hahn, a long-levered 27-year-old righty out of Virginia Tech, works off his sinker to set up a mid-70s slow curve.

Cotton, a 5-foot-11 righty out of the U.S. Virgin Islands by way of East Carolina University, picked up a screwball-changeup hybrid as a kid and is starting to unleash it on big league hitters.

Graveman throws fastballs — his sinker and cutter specifically — about 90 percent of the time. “You can’t really put anybody else in Graveman’s category; there aren’t many people in baseball who can throw predominantly sinkers the way he does and be successful,” Vogt said.

Triggs’s size (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) belies his velocity. He tops out around 90 miles per hour with an easy sidearm delivery that puts wiffle-ball movement on the pitch.

After making his major league debut as a swingman in 2016, Triggs has allowed zero earned runs in four of his five starts this year, an improvement Vogt chalks up to improved command and control.

“[Triggs] was throwing strikes,” Vogt said. “He was mixing pitches really well, and keeping everybody off-balance. For him, with the unorthodox arm angle for a starter, command is everything. When his command is on, he’s going to do it, and when he’s got all his pitches working the way he did, he’s going to get some people out.”

Vogt is essentially the only big league starting catcher many of these pitchers have ever known, and this includes Gray, who debuted in Oakland in July 2013. Graveman threw 4.2 innings for the Blue Jays before he was traded, and Hahn made 12 starts for the Padres, but Cotton, Manaea, and Triggs were all minor leaguers when Oakland acquired them.

As much of a partnership as a pitcher and catcher have at the highest level, that’s not as true in the minor leagues, where catchers are learning the game, too, or in college. Gray’s Vanderbilt program might be the best in the country for developing pitchers, and as a senior at Mississippi State, Graveman played for a national championship on a team with three other future big league pitchers. But in college, coaches, not the catcher, call the shots. Or as Manaea put it: “You never really have the opportunity to shake off unless you want to get yelled at.”

Despite the newfound freedom of the pros, Manaea says he rarely disagrees with Vogt.

“When you get up here and have guys like Vogter and [backup Josh Phegley, who] have been around for a while now, too, it’s nice knowing that they read the scouting reports, that they know the hitters,” Manaea said. “It’s a wealth of knowledge behind home plate, and most of the time I trust what they say. There’s very few times when I shake off and want to throw something different.”

“The difference is, he knows a lot more, because he’s caught over a million pitches,” Cotton said. “He knows how to read a swing, how to read the action of a pitch, stuff like that.”

In addition to building up his pitchers’ confidence, Vogt also says he tries to get them to think creatively.

“What I try to do is give them the best suggestion that I can give them for that pitch, and try to make them make pitches in certain situations that maybe they’ve never thought of or been comfortable with before,” Vogt said.

“We definitely are trying some different pitch sequences,” Manaea said. “Throwing more changeups one day, throwing more sliders one day, pitching backward. It’s not every day that we’re trying something different, but he’s definitely expanded me from what I had been, which was mostly just relying on my fastball and pitching off that.”

Vogt, for his part, carefully avoids taking credit for the success of the pitchers in his charge.

“These guys are unbelievably talented young pitchers,” he said. “Their stuff plays in this league, and they know what to do with it, and they’re phenomenal starters.”

Vogt, who’ll make a shade under $3 million this year, will have to navigate other holes in his game over the next few years to last long enough in the big leagues to chase a title or a big payday, or both. But worrying about free agency would fly in the face of the mind-set that Vogt adopted — “I try not to look at anything other than today” — over his years in the minors.

“For a guy like me, who’s always had his back against the wall, I want to keep that mentality going, because every day I’m not only fighting for my job, but also the guy on the mound,” he said.

While he was expounding on his one-day-at-a-time mentality, Vogt said something that stuck out.

“I need to be my best for him because he’s pitching for his life as well.”

All stats current through Wednesday morning.